Alf McCreary: 'I left the priesthood to get married but never stopped participating in Church life'
In our continuing series, we talk to leading figures about their faith
Denis Bradley (73) was born in Co Donegal. He was educated at St Columb's College in Londonderry, followed by six years at the Irish College in Rome. He served as a priest in the Bogside in Derry from 1970 to 1980. After leaving the priesthood, he worked as a counsellor, establishing two shelters and treatment centres for alcohol and drug addiction in the city. He is now married, with three grown-up children.
He says: "It is an unwritten rule in my house to keep my public life and family as separate as possible."
Q. Can you describe your early life?
A. I was the youngest of seven, three boys and four girls. It was a house where aunts, uncles and friends "called", My mother ran a boarding house and, from May to October, we lived with a stream of visitors, mostly from Scotland. We had a small grocery shop attached to the house; its only drawback was its proximity to the house. It was not uncommon for children to knock on the door at 11pm, looking for a penny-worth of sweets. It sounds like it was a crazy and hectic place, but it was also very joyful and colourful.
Q. What were your parents like?
A. My mother was a good organiser and a hard worker and I inherited some of her organisational ability. I had an innate understanding of what would make an organisation work and sustain it. My father, a bus driver, was a gentle and likeable man. I was used to being told that if I grew up to be as good as him, I would be doing well. He and my mother had a very close relationship and they always took time out for themselves. In summer, they would drive somewhere for "high tea" and, in winter, they often went to the cinema in Derry. Being the youngest, I would, more than the others, be taken with them.
Q. How and when did you come to faith?
A. Religious practice was part of everyday life; at certain times of the year, daily Mass and/or evening devotions was the norm, as it was for many of our neighbours. Not to be an active participant in that religious community was more remarkable than to be fully active within it. I was an altar boy for five or six years. Religious practice was - and is - an expression of who I am and, while it may have changed, or matured, over the years, it remains large in my life. I left the priesthood to get married in 1980, but I never stopped participating in religious or Church life. I am still sometimes asked to talk at Church retreats and other such events.
Q. Have you ever had a crisis of faith, or a gnawing doubt?
A. I never had a crisis, but I have always believed that faith and doubt walk hand-in-hand. Sometimes, one aspect will be stronger than the other. Faith and non-faith in God and an afterlife are reluctant cousins, in that both can never prove, in this life, that the other is wrong.
Q. Have you ever been angry with God? And, if so, why?
A. God enters my consciousness mostly through my understanding of Christ. God is too big, or distant, for my anger. I do get annoyed sometimes that Christ, in revealing God, asks so much of us humans, who are pretty fragile and self-absorbed. And yet there is something wonderful and majestic in the radical demands that Christ makes; that we be as fully human and loving as He was.
Q. Do you ever get criticised for your faith? And are you able to live with that criticism?
A. I am sure that there are those who think that my understanding of Church and faith are not always orthodox. However, their confidence and their tongues have been restrained and curtailed in recent years. The Catholic Church, its clergy and its members are much more humble and tolerant than of old. The days of "we are the one, true and apostolic Church" are gone for good. Thank God.
Q. Are you ever ashamed of your own Church or denomination?
A. I am ashamed of the arrogance and corruption, the sexual and power abuse of the past and the near-past that has been exposed in recent years. But, within my own life and experience, I observed as many acts of kindness and generosity as I did of cruelty and crudeness. I have admired the one and been deeply saddened at the other.
Q. Are you afraid to die? Or can you look beyond death?
A. I attend many wakes and funerals of relatives and friends. My peers and I joke that we're quickly moving up the exit queue. "Afraid" is too strong a word. Certainly, apprehensive of the unknown and sad that I will leave loved ones. Comforted that, if there is no afterlife, then consciousness ceases, but assured by the irrepressible desire in the human spirit for life, meaning and continuance. But mostly consoled by the words of Christ that He goes before us to the Father and that we are to follow.
Q. Are you ever worried about hell?
A. It never enters my mind. I am not even sure I believe in it anymore, certainly not in the everlasting understanding of it. A merciful God will have found ways of dealing with justice and reparation that are out of, and beyond, our human imagination. I have no idea what the afterlife will look, or feel, like.
Q. What do you think about people of other denominations and other faiths?
A. I see them exactly as I see people of my own faith. Human, expressing their understanding of God and their relationship with Him/Her in their own way, traditions and cultures. Other denominations of Christianity are manifestations of historical divisions that are unfortunate and will become less-marked in areas of the world where religious expression is more and more a minority sector. That is happening already in Ireland, north and south. I do have some difficulty with fundamentalism in any Church - my own included. Fundamentalism kills faith, in that it asserts and hardens it into a certainty, the antithesis of faith.
Q. Would you be comfortable stepping out from your own faith and trying to learn from other people?
A. I hope I have done that throughout my life and hope I will continue to do it for whatever years I have yet to live.
Q. Are the Churches here fulfilling their mission?
A. That is a massive question. In ways, of course, they are. All Churches provide space and opportunity to many, or a few, people. All Christian Churches on this island are presently unsure and defensive. They see the empty seats in their churches and they consider secularism as the new virus that is killing religious belief. A period of time in the desert may be what Christ is demanding. Pope Francis is an important beacon in his teaching and in his person. He is reasserting the centrality of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, while trying to steer the Catholic Church away from its traditional obsession with sexual morality.
He is also reasserting and recommitting the Catholic Church to what used to be described as Catholic social justice. I think the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, for whom I have a great regard, should follow his example, though I am not blind to the limitations of their system. I have Presbyterian friends and I find their spirituality and deep understanding of the Bible very uplifting.
They have a number of outstanding women ministers, who are a great "grace" to any Church. It is unfortunate to hear stirrings that women ministers are less comfortable within their Church than they might have been in the past.
Q. Has religion helped or hindered the people of Northern Ireland?
A. The main Churches were less influential than they could - and should - have been during the Troubles. They were caught in the headlights and struggled to become part of a solution, rather than part of the problem. It was my personal experience that it was left to individual clergy to contribute pastorally and strategically to what was happening on the streets and in the parishes. Those who became deeply involved did so without any great support, or understanding, from their leadership. It should not have been like that.
Q. What is your favourite film, book and music, and why?
A. My wife and I are regular cinema goers, but I don't have one favourite film. I saw The Green Book recently and enjoyed it.
My tastes in music and books are too eclectic to pick a favourite. In my early days, one of my sisters' boyfriends was a fan of Glenn Miller, so I was listening to big band music from an early age.
Q. Where do you feel closest to God?
A. At a Eucharist, or during a walk by the sea.
Q. What inscription would you like on your gravestone?
A. I have not made up my mind whether to be buried or to be cremated, but no inscription in any case.
Q. Have you any major regrets?